Troops may not be getting help

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The following editorial appeared in The Kansas City Star on May 16:

The U.S. Defense Department should move quickly to deal with problems highlighted in a report on how it handles troops at risk from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The recent report by the Government Accountability Office, first revealed by The Kansas City Star, pointed out a worrisome problem with current policy: Pentagon officials couldn’t clearly define how medical personnel decide whether troops at risk for the disorder need more treatment.

The Defense Department agreed that such criteria should be clear. But officials disputed a related GAO finding, which asserted that Pentagon officials were unable to verify that all troops needing such care actually get it.

Pentagon officials say the amount of care delivered is actually more extensive than the GAO findings suggested. Help comes “in a variety of ways,” said William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

But if officials can’t say how doctors determine whether at-risk troops need treatment – something the Pentagon admits – it’s not clear how they can know whether troops are getting the help they need.

As The Star has reported, Defense Department officials have underestimated how many troops were expected to return from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq with stress disorder. And a key finding of the recent GAO report said only 22 percent of soldiers considered at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder had been referred for further treatment.

The disorder is the combat veteran’s most common mental health problem. It can cause nightmares, anxiety and flashbacks – and it can severely undercut a veteran’s ability to readjust to civilian life. The Pentagon has a lot of work to do in this area.

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